There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.
The third season of Serial starts off with host Sarah Koenig introducing the place where the podcast listener will reside for the duration of its run. It’s a stunning, almost cinematic monologue. Koenig takes the listener through Cleveland’s Justice Center Complex, explaining that the “hideous but practical,” complex is an entire justice system, housing courts, jails, offices for state prosecutors and sheriffs, and city police. If this were a film, it would be one of those single-shot takes, taking you from the basement of the building, up the elevator, to the jail and courtrooms. We bump into the detectives, prosecutors, stenographers, lawyers, judges, defendants, victims, and witnesses who populate the building and who will likely pop up over the course of the season.
Serial is the podcast that’s impossible to ignore in the field. Podcasts have been around since the early 2000s, but when This American Life released its long-form investigation into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed, a man convicted for the crime, it was a watershed moment for the medium. Serial demonstrated that this type of ongoing, narrative storytelling had legs, and in the years since, there have been thousands of followers using the same format and style, in ways that work and don’t.
Serial’s second season, followed the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who left his post and was subsequently captured by the Taliban. It wasn’t received with the same level of enthusiasm, and it seems that the team behind the series has taken their time to figure out what to focus on. In the opening of this new season, Koenig lays it out: people often asked her what the story of Adnan Syed said about the American criminal justice system. Her answer is brief: it really doesn’t say much about it, because it was such an extraordinary situation. Most families don’t — or can’t afford expensive attorneys, and most cases don’t go to trial — much less one that lasts six weeks.
That realization is what has inspired this current season: a profile of the criminal justice system as a whole. Koenig and reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi enjoyed incredible access to Cleveland’s Justice Center Complex, where they spent an entire year watching the comings and goings.
The first two episodes of this season are smaller stories: the first, “A Bar Fight Walks Into the Justice Center” follows a case in which a woman is arrested after a bar fight, while the second, “You’ve Got Some Gauls” looks at the discretion and power that judges have to mete out justice. Both are a far cry from the larger, overarching stories that have defined the series. It’s a promising start to the season, and a return to the subject that really made the show stand out when it debuted: an in-depth look at the complicated world of the criminal justice system in the US. The series will be released weekly on Thursdays.